Saturday, January 24, 2015


Did you know today is National Readathon Day??  I have been meaning to blog about the fact that I am ready to participate in this readathon, sponsored by Penguin Random House.  But the girls had a very short week of school scheduled, coupled with the fact that both Frances and Gloria got sick with croup and colds this week.  So the week has gone way too fast!

So the readathon starts at 12noon and goes until 4pm.  It's only four hours, which makes it very doable for someone like me.  I can't wait to start reading.
I have two books ready to read for this afternoon...  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is my "grown-up" read for this afternoon.  Powerless by Matthew Cody is my teen book for the day.  If by some chance I finish both I always have plenty of backups!

I will check in once an hour, starting at noon, and let you all know where I am.  If you are participating too, chime in in the comments so I can cheer you on too!  Have a great Readathon!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Alice in Lace

It has been a long, long time since I wrote about Alice.  My last post was here, two years ago!  I feel like I should apologize to Alice - I had a new book read and ready to blog right after that.  It just took a really, really long time for it to make its way to the top of the pile!  I am really looking forward to continuing in this series, particularly since while I was taking that break, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor published the final book in the series, Now I'll Tell You Everything  . I can't wait to see how Alice grows up.

How could Alice be old enough to get married?  It hasn't been that long!!  She isn't, really... but their eighth grade calls is doing a unit in health class called Critical Choices.  As part of that unit, students are given hypothetical situations to learn about.  They have a new teacher, Mr. Everett, and he tells them "' Your grade will depend not necessarily on how you deal with your problem, but on the larger view you take.  I'll want to know how your solution affects you, the people around you, society, the works.'" (p. 2)  It's interesting that even though Mr. Everett explains that they'll be assigned hypothetical issues, everyone is worried about how they'll handle it, or how this hypothetical situation will be judged by others.  Alice's best friends, Elizabeth and Pamela, are total opposites - Elizabeth is more conservative, a little pious, and uncomfortable with the way things change as they grow up.  Pamela is free-spirited and slightly devil-may-care.  The two girls are both thinking about the same potential assignment, and their responses couldn't be more different.  Pamela jokes about the possibility of pregnancy being assigned to her.  "But Elizabeth worried that if she got the assignment for teenage pregnancy, she might have to go to the doctor for her first pelvic exam just so she could write it up for her report.  She's hopeless." (p. 3)

When the assignments are passed out, Alice and Patrick (who is Alice's boyfriend) are assigned to be married.  Mr. Everett's assignment asks them to plan a wedding, honeymoon, rent an apartment, find furniture and create a realistic budget.  Alice thinks this is an exciting idea, but Patrick isn't quite so thrilled.  Their friend Pamela is supposed to be pregnant, just the situation she joked about, and luckily Elizabeth is only buying a car.  Pamela asks Mr. Everett what she could possibly have to decide if she's already pregnant, and he chides her "'There are 'what ifs' all over the place.  That's what this class is about.  Thinking thinks through before they happen.  Planning your life instead of letting events decide things for you. '" (p. 7)

Alice's ongoing story throughout the series (if you haven't been reading the series from the beginning like I have) has the added theme of grief.  Her mother died of cancer when Alice was five.  Alice barely remembers her, but her older brother Lester (who is seven years older) remembers her much more vividly.  In Alice in Lace, Lester turns 21, and Alice and her father celebrate with him.  Lester asks them: "' Do you remember the way she always brought a Kleenex to the table when she carried in a birthday cake with candles?' Dad looked puzzled for a moment. 'Now that you mention it, I guess I do.' 'I always thought that it was because she was emotional about our growing up and had a tissue ready in case she cried', Lester said. 'I didn't find out till much later that the smoke from the candles always set off her allergies, and that's why she blew her nose.'" (p. 39).  They all laugh at this idea, and the story brings back warm memories.  But Alice can't help wishing she remembered more about her mother, so she can participate in these conversations too.

With Alice planning her hypothetical wedding and Lester turning 21, their mother is never far from all of their hearts.  At the end of the unit, the class decides to throw a wedding for Patrick and Alice.  While trying on dresses at Pamela's house, Alice thinks of how this might have been different.  "I was thinking how, when the big day really came, if it did ever come, my mother wouldn't be a part of it.  She couldn't help me choose the dress, couldn't help with the flowers or invitations, wouldn't be there smiling at me in the first row.  I reached up and wiped my eyes before anyone could notice, but I felt a big hole in my chest, an empty place that nothing could fill." (p. 134).  What I like about Naylor's depiction of the family's grief is that it is very natural.  The waves of their sadness come and go, and it's at "big" moments where she is particularly missed.

One very poignant moment happens late in the book.  Alice is trying to grasp a little of the realities of a wedding and a honeymoon, and late one night she goes in to her dad's room to talk about it.  "I was just about to knock and go in when I saw him standing by his closet, his back to me. ...And he had his face buried in it, like he was, well, drinking in the scent.  I couldn't move.  I couldn't go backward or forward.  It was Mom's robe.  I don't know how I knew, but I knew.  And after a long moment, I saw his shoulders rise, as though he were taking a deep breath, and then he slowly hung it on a hanger again, and put it at one end of his closet." (p. 143-4)  This scene helps readers understand that the cycles of grief continue on, and that sometimes you need the support of that person, even after they're gone.

There is one other component to Alice in Lace.  Naylor quite often weaves social issues into her plots.  I mentioned earlier that Mr. Everett is a new teacher at their school, but not how young and cute he seems to his students.  "Mr. Everett was probably about thirty and really tall, maybe six foot five, wore Dockers, and rolled his shirtsleeves up above his elbows.  A younger version of Brad Pitt, Pamela described him.  His smile was what got to us.  It was warm.  Friendly.  You couldn't call it flirtatious.  He just gave the impression of really loving his job." (p. 1-2).  A cute teacher, talking about hypothetical life situations including marriage and this setting off alarm bells yet?  One of the female students, Jill, decides she doesn't like the assignment she is given (to plan a funeral for her grandmother) and asks to have it switched.  Mr. Everett very diplomatically refuses.  She goes to see him after school to ask again, and he again refuses.  Alice is in the room when it happens, but Jill doesn't see her.  Alice, however, describes what happened.  "He tucked his papers under one arm, and gave her a quick hug  with the other as he headed for the door. 'Come on now, Jill. You can do it.' he said, and he was gone." (p. 93).  Jill wants to punish Mr. Everett for not allowing her to change her assignment, and she tells the other students that Mr. Everett made comments about her body in the conversation Alice observed.  Then Mr. Everett is suspended for the alleged actions, and Alice realizes that she has to speak up about what she saw that day.

All of these plots, which sound very disparate and isolated, actually come together in a very realistic way.  I continue to love Alice' growing-up journey.  Even as an adult, many of the things Alice and her family go through resonate with me.  Does that mean I've never grown up?  On the contrary, I prefer to think that Naylor's books just continue to be relevant.  Looking forward to Alice's next experiences.

Alice in Lace.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996.

from my own collection.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Park Scientists

You know I am a huge fan of the Scientists in the Field series.  I write about them often, including my most recent post, here. One of the things I love most about this series is how accessible they make science for kids.  I believe that the word 'scientist' most often conjures up an image of a person in a white coat with goggles on, in a sterile lab, standing behind smoking test tubes.  But this series brings readers to interesting places, where research takes place out in the world.  Many of the places this research takes place are exotic - Australia, Africa and New Zealand.  Those are amazing places, and I am fascinated with  Park Scientists because it takes place here, "in America's own backyard."

First, Carson gives a little of the history of the National Parks and some of their locations.  In the United States, we tend to think of the national parks as fun places to visit on a trip, camp in, or explore.  But the author points out that scientists benefit the parks, and parks benefit the scientists.  One of the biggest benefits to doing research in a national park is that "Because national parks are protected places, researchers are able to do long-term studies of ecosystems, geysers, and climate.  Scientists can collect data for years or decades without worrying about a highway going in or a meadow being plowed under.  Parks are like natural laboratories." (p. 1)  I think that is an important idea for readers to grasp - that science is going on all around them.  And the idea of the national park being a stable environment makes so much sense - of course these are the places where external factors can be controlled  We all want our national parks to be preserved, and this is another reason to add to the list.

Carson takes in-depth looks at researchers in three national parks in very different climates and parts of the United States.  Of course, I was very excited to see that the first national park was my state's Yellowstone National Park.    Each national park's section begins with a page of facts about the park, including size, age, websites and reasons to go visit that park.  Did you know that Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the very first national park?  The reason Yellowstone was created was due to its geysers, which is the first item researchers are studying in this book.  Readers go out on the trail with two NPS geologists towards Norris Geyser Basin.  There have been reports of possible new hydrothermal activities there, and the geologists need to survey the site, to monitor what's happening.  They take temperatures and measurements before moving on to other activities.  Of course, when researching boiling hot geysers, the geologists have to wear special protective gear, including heat-resistant boots and wool socks.  Their scientific gear includes "temperature guns, an infrared camera, notebooks, regular cameras, temperature probes, a psychrometer, and gas detectors." (p. 9)  That's a lot of stuff!

At Yellowstone, geysers aren't the only thing being researched.  Another group being studied are the grizzly bears.  Wildlife scientists at Yellowstone research many factors in bear behavior, including hibernation and the way mother grizzlies give birth during the winter (stay tuned for another book review on grizzlies soon!).  There is an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team at Yellowstone that studies these bears.  They use many pieces of equipment to track bears throughout the 19,000 square miles around Yellowstone that is grizzly territory.  There are telemetry collars, that send signals to researchers of a bear's location.  There are also GPS collars, that collect data and store it.  When the electronic clock located within the collar signals that time is up, the collar unlocks and drops off.  Cool, huh?  Scientists then use telemetry to find the collar and download and analyze its data.  "Study Team scientists collect information on what bears eat, as well as bear signs - tracks and trails, scat and fur, claw and rubbing marks, and whatever else the bears leave behind." (p. 24)  For example, grizzlies eat the seeds of the whitebark pine prior to hibernation.  The seeds are oily and help grizzlies store calories for the winter.  But these trees are dying, so researchers must find other alternatives to introduce.

The next national park is Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona.  The first type of scientist featured who works in Saguaro National Park is a herpetologist.  You might think that the natural reptile being studied in a desert environment would be a rattlesnake, but you'd be wrong.  This herpetologist studies Gila monsters.  I'd lived in central Arizona for a few years, and this chapter taught me so much - I really knew nothing about Gila monsters.  I had no idea that Gila monsters have a venomous bite!  I guess it was lucky for me that I never saw one in the wild, then.  They are primarily nocturnal and live in underground burrows, so scientists track them using telemetry also.  Gila monsters haven't been studied much, so there is much to learn.  "Scientists  don't even know the time of year the lizards are born.  Gila monster moms lay eggs in underground burrows in the late summer, and baby Gila hatchlings leave burrows the following spring.  When exactly they hatch during those eight to ten months is their well-kept secret." (p. 31-2)

One of the coolest things happening in Saguaro National Park during the time Carson documents is something called "citizen science".  This is focused around a program called BioBlitz, "a twenty-four hour scientific inventory of every species in Saguaro National Park" (p. 34).  The BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park took place in 2011, and included five thousand volunteers who counted "more than 1,200 kinds of plants, insects, animals and fungi." (p. 48).  What an awesome experience!  Carson tells readers that one BioBlitz a year is taking place until 2016 - if you are interested in learning more, you can go here. - this site has lots of resources to create your own BioBlitz, which I think is great!  But the 2015 BioBlitz is at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park this May - sign me up!

So this section of the book takes place during the 2011 BioBlitz, and another thing I love is that teenagers get involved with surveying saguaro cactus (what else?).  The scientist who is helping them complete their survey thinks this is crucial: "Saguaro National Park's future depends on young people becoming real, true stewards of this park." (p. 48).  These teens are in Section 17 of the park, measuring saguaros, counting arms and nest holes, adding to a database that covers seventy years of cactus data.  Section 17 has been the site of an ongoing study since 1941, trying to find the cause of saguaro deaths.  The teens and the information they collect are part of an enormous longitudinal task.

Finally, there is a section about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches across Tennessee and North Carolina.  The first species being studied here exists nowhere else in the world except sections of the national park.  It is the red-cheeked salamander.  This salamander is unusual because it is terrestrial.  But these salamanders must live where there is high humidity and cool temperatures.  "The longer a salamander must be out looking for food in the open air, exposed to wind and warmth, the more water it loses." (p. 53).  There are very few places these salamanders can live successfully.  "Only 575 square miles of the park has a cool and humid enough climate at a high enough elevation - a suitable microclimate - for them" (p. 54).  One of the pieces of this chapter that will pique readers' interest is the background of the evolutionary ecologist.  She tells how her interest in animals got her started in her career, and how those qualities help her today.

The last section is about an expert on fireflies, and a phenomenon that also happens only in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Each summer, synchronous fireflies light up the sky around Elkmont, Tennessee.  Synchronous male fireflies blink in unison to attract females.  Even more amazing than the phenomenon is the fact that while Elkmont natives had known about these fireflies for generations, science believed that these fireflies did not exist until 1993.  Again, the habitat of the Great Smoky Mountains is a factor in the large number of fireflies within the park - there are lots of moist forest trees and leaves there.

This book obviously had lots of great information and facts that I had never known before.  Carson organizes most of this information in sidebars on each page, and this can include additional facts, maps, and statistics on the national parks.  There are also graphs and charts to assist readers.  This large amount of information within the text, though, means that there is less back matter.  There is a glossary, index, and lots of detailed source notes, alongside bibliographic citations.  One of the things Carson takes pains to point out is how much impact the researchers had on the book.  They all reviewed their own sections of the book.  I think this is important for young readers to understand - how important it is to get others' words right.

This book (and this whole series) are great additions to school libraries.  There is a large emphasis on science in our schools and as a career choice, particularly for girls.  This series can really bring that occupation to life.  And there is such diversity in this book from the topics studied to the people involved.  It was as fun to read as it was educational.

Park Scientists: Gila Monsters, Geysers, and Grizzly Bears in America's Own Backyard .  Mary Kay Carson; with photographs by Tom Uhlman.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Becoming a Ballerina

This post should have been written at least two weeks ago.  I had intended to put it up around the time we actually went to The Nutcracker, but, like many people, I suspect, the holidays seem to have passed by in a blur of holiday traditions and wrapping paper.  I am just now getting back into my regular routines, writing being one of them.  I'm looking forward to spending 2015 with all of you!

Here in Helena we are lucky to have two ballet companies who each offer productions of The Nutcracker during the holiday season.  And because Helena is also a fairly small town, we knew dancers in both of the productions.  We ended up going to the production that was scheduled the weekend before Christmas.  Frances and Gloria have a friend who was in that Nutcracker, and they were so excited to see her perform!  It was very fun to see her and recognize her up on stage, and the whole event lit my girls up with its magic.

Like most families, we have lots of Christmas traditions.  One of my favorite traditions is wrapping twenty-five holiday books up before December first each year.  Then Frances and Gloria alternate opening a book each night to read.  We have many versions of The Nutcracker, so the girls are very familiar with the story.  But this was Gloria's first time attending The Nutcracker, and Frances had only been one other time two years ago.  I was interested to see what the experience of seeing the ballet in person would be like for them.  Would they be bored or confused by the lack of words?  Would they be able to follow the plot?  As we walked back to our car after the ballet was over, I knew my worries were for nothing.  Both girls twirled happily through the snow, declaring what role they would play next year - despite the fact that neither has ever taken a lesson!

Because they've never had a lesson, Frances and Gloria have no idea of the work and hours of practice that go into each production of The Nutcracker.  I have to admit that I had only a very general idea myself.  These days, I only see The Nutcracker through a mother's eyes.  The mother of the girls' friend told me about all of the practices (we often scheduled playdates around practice on the weekends), and I knew it took quite a bit of family commitment.

But all of the drive, focus and commitment was revealed through Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story.  Fiona, the main dancer featured in this narrative, has been cast as one of the Claras for the Boston Ballet's version of The Nutcracker.  Because it's the Boston Ballet, and to make things easier for the dancers, there are multiple casts - 247 performers in all!  The book introduces Fiona at auditions for the ballet.  Fiona is the middle child in a family of three sisters, and all of them are auditioning.  The auditions are long and arduous.  Each girl must learn a series of steps for each set of roles, and recreate them perfectly.  There are also a series of callbacks before dancers are notified.  Fiona gets the part of Clara, and each of her sisters gets a role also. 

Once they've celebrated their good fortune in getting cast, it is time to start the work.  The performers only have two months to learn everything.  There are many, many practices with long hours expected of them.  There aren't just the steps to learn, but Fiona must also discover Clara for herself, so she can bring Clara to life for everyone who attends her performances.  It's fascinating to see what Fiona learns, and how her version of Clara is slightly different from the other Claras who are cast.  The choreographer, Ms. Atkins, works with all of the Claras, both together and individually, to make sure their performances are the same, but with their own personality or strengths included.  "' How are you getting into your last arabesque?' she asks me.  Ms. Atkins is trying to get us to put the movements together so they mean more than just steps, so they look like a mini-performance." (p. 17)  There are many, many hours spent in the ballet studio.  For example, on November 21st, the company is performing their first run-through of the ballet.  Fiona notes "We've been at the studio since eleven o'clock this morning, and now it's almost two. ...Run-throughs take longer than the actual performance because we have to go over parts that need corrections, work on spacing, and have breaks.  All the Claras and Fritzes are required to attend all run-throughs with the company." (p. 23).

As I mentioned about the ballet company in Helena, there is also a huge family commitment to the show.  Fiona talks about her mother (who, remember, has three dancers in the cast!).  "She never complains about the hours she spends in the car everyday, driving us back and forth from school to ballet to home.  And on top of that, she teaches piano." (p. 20)  Fiona mentions school several times, and it must be a challenge to keep up with homework during this season.  "I have lots of good friends at the ballet school, but it's different with my regular school friends.  I don't get to hang out after school or on weekends, because I'm always in class or rehearsal..." (p. 20).  Fiona also tells another dancer that her mother had to wake her up at three in the morning because they had forgotten to set her hair in curlers the night before.  There are an amazing amount of details that go into getting everything just right.

Frances, Gloria and I first read this book about a year ago, and one of the things that stuck with me was Fiona's worry that she wouldn't hit the Mouse King with her slipper during the Battle scene.  It was so fun to see it take place on our stage and I let out a sigh of relief when our Clara's slipper actually did hit the Mouse King.  I had never thought about how tricky that might be before, but I had a new appreciation for it.  And on opening night, Fiona also hits the Mouse King! Whew!

This book is much more picture book nonfiction than some of the other books I review.  I prefer my nonfiction to have lots of back matter - this title doesn't have any, but I could see where it would be nice to have some.  I would have loved to have a glossary of ballet terms, perhaps with drawings of each movement.  I would have also liked to see some information about which version of The Nutcracker was performed by the Boston Ballet.  But that isn't the purpose of this book.  The book is structured as a narrative, and it works very well.  You see everything through Fiona's eyes, and she has a very likable, readable voice.  The authors are able to get quite a bit of detail about ballet and Fiona's life into this narrative.  We learn so much about the requirements of this particular ballet, as well as how the Boston Ballet prefers to produce it.  It is also interesting to see how Fiona continues to improve and learn throughout the two months.

The book is illustrated with lots and lots of photographs.  It helps add to the feeling that this is Fiona's diary - you get to see her practice, spend time with her sisters and friends, watch her at home and in performances.  The costumes are glorious, and the whole book makes you feel like you really know Fiona.

This book is a fun addition to our collection of Nutcrackers.  I can't wait to read it again with Frances and Gloria now that we have seen the ballet this year.  I'd recommend it to any of you who have children who are as eager to begin lessons as mine are!

Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story starring the dancers of Boston Ballet.  Lise Friedman & Mary Dowdle.  Viking, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review

Friday, December 19, 2014


One of the biggest things that happened to us this summer is that we got a new kitten.  We already have a 12 year old cat, Gus.  He is the elder statesman (and had been the token male) of our little house.  In Gus' opinion, at 12, he had earned the right to be grouchy whenever he pleased, and to expect a certain level of attention and service.  Gus is a tuxedo cat (black with white paws and stomach).  One day, I was walking down the hall at work and noticed that a co-worker was advertising for adoption who would become known at our house as Figaro.

He matches Gus almost exactly in markings, which made me decide he was meant to be ours.  It was a fairly spur of the moment decision.  Figaro (or Figgy as the girls call him) came from the rescue group RezQ Dogs.  They are a great group, as most rescue groups are.  Within a couple of days, Figaro was home with us, and that was when the wild rumpus began!  He has his quirks, some of which are due to his humble beginnings (there is never enough food for him, EVER) and some are just because he is still young (our Christmas tree is tightly to the wall this year and has no ornaments on it because he's already scaled it multiple times!).  But one thing still holds true about him - when I first looked at his poster, my co-worker told me "Figaro has never met a person he didn't like."  And we are lucky that that continues - he is friendly, purrs like crazy, and puts up with the girls constantly carrying him around.

So when I read the summary of Waggers, it struck a chord in me.  Waggers is a puppy who tries so hard to be good.  He wants nothing more than to be loved.  But there's a problem almost immediately - "...when they picked Waggers up, his tail twirled so hard it sent the other puppies flying." The sign mentions that the puppies are razortail whippets, but Waggers' tail is truly incredible.  The children looking at him fall in love with Waggers, and beg to take him home.  Their parents agree, believing "It's only a tail.  How much harm could it do?"  Famous last words.

Waggers is a really sweet dog.  He is helpful.  When Michael sees a monster, Waggers leaps into action.  He creeps over to the sofa, stalking the "monster" (really Michael's father).  He jumps onto the monster's shoes to protect Michael.  But that tail keeps getting Waggers into trouble.  And when Waggers gets the inevitable scolding, there is the regular refrain: "He tried to be good.  He tried really hard.  But his tail got in the way."

As the weeks go on, Waggers does a really good job of protecting his people from all sorts of things (like an "alien invasion' - really, squirrels), exploring his new home, and learning new tricks.  Or at least, he really intends to do all those things.  The reality is that he rips down curtains, lets water spill out of the washer, and generally resembles a tornado.

Sadly, Moni and Michael's parents decide to find a new home for Waggers.  They believe he needs a place where his tail won't cause so much havoc.  On his last night at their house, Moni and Michael decide to have a campout with Waggers.  Once the children fall asleep, Waggers gets an itch.  He wags and wags and wags until the itch goes away and he finally falls into a deep sleep.  In the morning, when Waggers and his family wake up, there is a surprise for all of them.  Waggers and his unruly tail have tidied up the yard!  And now Waggers' tail is in high demand instead of being a huge problem.

The resolution is one of the things I love most about this book.  Waggers' family isn't really prepared for the demands of a puppy, and I can definitely relate to that!  Waggers' tail is enormous and it has a mind of its own.  It is only when the family thinks outside the box that what they have seen as a negative actually becomes a positive.  Waggers loves helping others with their yards and other home improvement tasks (he's especially good at painting!).  And when he returns home each night, he's calm, has burned off all his excess energy, and is ready to be loved by his family again.

The illustrations are a great match for the text.  They are super expressive and full of energy.  And that tail is the naughtiest, funniest part!  It rips and whips apart shoes, tables, the kitchen and everything in its path.  It slithers, curls and waves while the humans crouch and cower.  Ultimately, though, it's Waggers' personality that wins over the day.

At our house, Figaro has developed an insatiable love for paper.  He loves to reach over and tease up a corner of a stray piece.  Once the corner is standing up, he starts shredding.  You can tell how much he loves the way it feels, so we've learned to not leave out much paper.  Maybe we can turn that negative into a positive too, like Waggers' family...maybe we can get him to shred confidential information?  In the meantime, we love him as much as Waggers' family loves Waggers!

Thanks again to Stacy Nyikos for appearing.  For other stops on the Waggers blog tour please check

Waggers.  Written by Stacy Nyikos; illustrated by Tamara Anegon.  Sky Pony Press, 2014.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Building Our House

I have never, ever been someone who wanted to tackle home construction.  I don't have the vision to see how this room or that might look differently with a wall torn down.  I also really, really dislike the dust and mess of remodeling, the noise of construction, the various headaches of planning and purchasing and completion.  Once when I was in my early teens, my family embarked on a home remodeling and expansion project.  It took place at the other end of our house from my bedroom.  I doubt I was inconvenienced in any way.  Yet it had an impact on me, though I remember very little of the process.  For the family in Building Our House, it has a very different impact.

The very first page shows the little family (mom, dad and two children) crammed into the front seat of an old pickup truck.  On the title page, they are shown packing everything they own into that truck.  As they turn in to their new lot,  the truck is crammed high with those belongings, covered with an old tarp.  The narrator says "Today is moving day.  We left our old house  in the city and are moving to the country."  As the pages move on, it turns out that the family is building their own house (which you might have suspected from the title!), on a lot where a house has never been before.  They believe have everything they need to get started - tools, plans, and that truck.  The narrator (who is now revealed as the perhaps four year old  daughter) tells us the truck's name is Willys.

As the family gets started, some help arrives.  The little girl describes when the trailer where they'll live arrive.  Then a truck arrives with a drill to drill for water, and later the electric company comes to raise wires.  After water and gas are installed to help make the little trailer ready for them, the family launches into purchasing and gathering supplies.  She states that her dad works at a job in town during the week, so they do all the work on the weekends. 

Her Grandpa comes to dig the foundation with a backhoe, once her dad has staked out the property.  The hard labor begins in earnest now, framing, pouring concrete, shaping lumber.  As the winter approaches (the second winter of this project already!) they work harder than ever to complete the house.  There are fundamental pieces that must be in place before the snow - chimney, roof, siding and windows.  But, as often happens, the winter winds and storms arrive early.

The little family is finally in the house as the snow grows thick upon the ground, but there is still much to do, including the all-important plumbing, electricity, insulation and other  crucial, slow steps.  Finally, the home is ready and there is a moving party to welcome the family home.  The little girl (who has grown a lot older over the 18-ish months took place), notes "Once the moving is done everyone goes back to their homes, but my family stays right where we are.  It's our very first night in our new home."  This is a satisfying ending to all the work, and in fact even to the readers it feels like an enormous accomplishment.

There have been other big events that take place over the course of the book, if you are careful to examine the illustrations.  When the family first arrives at the field where they'll build, a stray cat is stalking through the weeds.  As the time continues, you can see that same cat first being fed outside, frolicking with the children, and once they've all moved inside the new house, giving birth to kittens that also become part of the family.  And there is a new addition to the human family during the house building too.  Once the family begins living inside, the mother's stomach is unmistakably ungainly with a new baby.  As they move in, officially, you can spot the new baby nestled in her arms.

I've referred to the detail in the illustrations but they are really such a great match to Bean's story.  Even though I've highlighted some of the changes, there are many other items to pore over as the year goes by.  The father often looks haggard and frazzled, as a father working full-time while building a house might.  The mother is clearly more architecturally-inclined - she studies the plans and does all the measuring.  She also does her fair share of the construction work too.  It is fun to see a gopher pop up in the field from time to time, clearly not deterred by the cat.

There is poetry in the writing, as well.  One of my favorite scenes is this one: "On a clear, cold night Dad sets the corners of the foundation by the North Star.  One wall will face north to ward off the wind, one east to welcome the morning, one south to soak in the sun, and one west to see out the day."  That is beautiful writing - I can feel the winter night, the care that went into choosing each corner of the foundation.  This is just the beginning of the process, but it needs to be right.

There are many things I love about this family and this story.  I cannot imagine the vision this took, the persistence throughout the long winters, the strength and energy to keep working when it got hard or overwhelming.  I love that this is truly a family project - on every page, everyone is working, even the children.  Sure, they have fun, hiding under wheelbarrows or splashing in wading pools, but the children also help measure, tote lumber and help lay insulation.  They are involved, and it's a family accomplishment.  And when the work cannot be finished by their little unit, their extended family comes.  Aunts and uncles help with the frame-raising and I've already mentioned Grandpa coming with the backhoe.

One of the best parts about this story is the author's note.  Bean explains that this book was inspired by his own parents building their house.  He includes photos from that time in his life, and it's so enchanting to see these photos echoed on the previous spreads.  I think this sentence summarizes both families very nicely: "My parents thought of themselves as homesteaders and brought to housebuilding a pioneering spirit of ingenuity and independence."  This was truly a leap of faith, but it paid off in some amazing ways.

Building Our House. Jonathan Bean.  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013.

Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Otis and the Scarecrow

"It was summer when the scarecrow first came
to the farm where the friendly little tractor named
Otis lived, back when the corn was tall and ripe."
I'm not sure if I've mentioned my beloved farm family before on this blog.  Prairie Heritage Farm is owned by a family that I am lucky enough to call my friends, the Cowgills.  Their farm is in Power, Montana, roughly 99 miles from my home in Helena.  During the summer for the past two years, I've driven every other week up to the farm to pick up shares of the harvest for people who live here in Helena.  I do this about 18 times a summer, from June through the beginning of October.  Knowing the Cowgills, and participating in their farm, has enriched our lives in so many ways.  They are wonderful people with a real passion for what they do.  The food that we get from the farm (vegetables, grains, turkeys, eggs and pork, at various times of the year) has taught me so much about eating what is fresh, and experimenting with new foods and tastes.  And it is such an amazing gift - people who purchase shares here in Helena come to my house to pick them up.  I love talking with people about what is currently growing on the farm, what looks great that week, and advocating for my favorite family farm.  And even more importantly, the Cowgill children, Willa and Eli, have the most amazing collection of farm-themed children's books I've ever seen.
That's where Otis comes in.  The farmer puts out the scarecrow as the corn ripens so that the crows will be frightened away.  And of course, at first his ploy works.  All the crows disappear.  What Otis sees, though, isn't scary - it's a potential new friend.  Otis is already friends with all the farm animals, and there's no reason why the scarecrow shouldn't be his friend too.  But when Otis and the pack of animals approach the scarecrow, "He just stood there, that sour look on his face, staring at the cornfield.  The animals didn't know what to think."  As autumn approaches, the animals have all given up on the scarecrow as someone to engage with.  As pumpkins are harvested, "The farm looked different, but Otis loved the changing seasons and he worked and played as hard as ever, putt puff puttedy chuff." 
This year I not only got a share through the summer, but also got a turkey at Thanksgiving, and have gotten a fall/winter share the past few weeks.  In Montana, the growing seasons are short, and many crops can be adversely affected by the snow and cold that can arrive as early as September.  Crops are grown in greenhouses or under hoops to protect them and keep the soil warm as long as possible.  I am unexpectedly grateful for fresh baby lettuces, spinach and kale this fall.
As autumn continues, Otis and his friends are playing the quiet game.  "The quiet game is a contest in which everyone must stay quiet and still.  No sounds, no laughing, no snorting, quacking, giggling, or puffing."  They all play together - ducks, horse, puppy, calf, pig and Otis.  But Otis can't help thinking of the scarecrow, all alone in the field, sour look and all.  As a cold rainstorm starts to usher in winter, the animals all huddle together, staying warm in each other's company under the apple tree.  As they play the quiet game, Otis keeps thinking of someone who is left out, someone who would be the best at that game.
I have always loved the Otis books.  One of the things I love best about Otis the tractor is how hard he works during the day, but how easily he slips into play mode.  The quiet game is a fun game for all of them, in part because it triggers very predictable responses from each of them.  "This made the bull chuckle with a snort.  The bull's snort would amuse the ducks...soon everyone would be laughing, snorting, quacking and giggling. "  All of the animals and Otis enjoy each other and have camaraderie no matter what they are doing.
Another thing that I loved about Otis that is consistent across all of his books is his kindness and friendship.  In the first Otis book, he and the calf bond over their play.  In this book, there can be no real connection with the scarecrow - no matter how hard Otis tries, he cannot get the scarecrow to want to be his friend.  But ultimately that doesn't matter to Otis.  Otis gives the gift of friendship to the scarecrow anyways, keeping him company on his hill.  It is a sweet, thoughtful gesture that is completely Otis.
There is one other thing that I wanted to share about these books.  I love the illustrations and how well the book design works with Long's illustrative technique.  The colors are soft and a little retro, just like Otis is.  The book as a whole looks refined and elegant, which could make the story not as relatable to young children.  But the sophisticated design and gorgeous colors are offset by the characters Long creates.  The animals, the farmer and Otis all have the most expressive faces.  They show disgust, delight, and even that sour look on the scarecrow.  And the sight of the animals all playing the quiet game is perfect - full of laughter and action.
As autumn has already transitioned into winter here, it feels like a little miracle when my favorite farmer dropped off my share a couple of days ago.  He was already in town, so I didn't make the trek out to Power this time.  He brought four full bags of potatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti squash, eggs, and greens.  All fresh, all recently harvested, with some of the dirt from the fields still lingering.  My love for Prairie Heritage Farm and the Cowgills is like Otis' gift of friendship - it's really a gift to myself.
Gloria at the farm
Otis.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2009.
Otis and the Scarecrow.  Loren Long.  Philomel Books, 2014.
Otis from my personal collection, Otis and the Scarecrow  sent by publisher for review